What I’ve learned about writing from reading Toni Morrison

August 6, 2019
Category: Uncategorized

(Author’s note: American author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died Aug. 5 at the age of 88. I studied her writing and wrote about it in 2016 book “The Art of X-ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.” This tribute is adapted from a chapter in that book.)

Some writers are great storytellers; others are great lyricists. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is both, of course, but when reading “The Bluest Eye,” I find myself wanting to stop the narrative so that I could rest and savor the beauty and power of her prose. It’s like that rare occasion when you stop the car trip for a minute so you can watch the sun set behind the mountains.

There are countless passages that deserve our close attention, but there is one Morrison move that stands out. For lack of a better word, I will call it repetition. I don’t mean repetition in its common sense: using a word or phrase over and over again until it gets tedious or meaningless. Morrison’s texts might look like that at first glance, but upon X-ray inspection, it turns out that each signature word changes with repetition, like an echo in a valley.

A simple distinction might be useful: In literary terms, there is a difference between repetition and redundancy. The first tends to be intentional, purposeful, reinforcing. The latter is needlessly repetitive, a waste of words or space. No one told The Beatles that “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” didn’t need all those “yeahs.” But when we use the cliché “various and sundry,” it’s not hard to recognize that both words mean about the same thing. (“Please go sit on that sofa or couch,” said the redundant shrink.)

 

Before we look at passages from Morrison, a plot summary would be helpful. The book, set in 1940-41, tells the story of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who is obsessed with white images of beauty. In an act of racial and personal self-loathing, she dreams of having the bluest eyes. She suffers the cruelties of poverty, rape, a pregnancy that ends in stillbirth, sustained only by the fantasy of blue eyes — fulfilled only when she becomes possessed by mental illness in the end. Written in 1962, Morrison’s work anticipates decades of attention to racial beauty, diversity, feminism, body image and sexual abuse.

Right words in the right order

Let’s begin by X-raying a single narrative sentence that is central to the thematic action of the story:

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes.

As I’ve done so many times with the line from Macbeth (“The Queen, my lord, is dead”), I’ll begin by creating alternative versions of the original. Morrison could have written:

  1. Without fail, each night she prayed for blue eyes.
  2. She prayed for blue eyes each night without fail.
  3. She prayed for blue eyes without fail each night.
  4. For blue eyes she prayed each night without fail.

When I study the work of a Nobel Prize winner, I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. So let’s X-ray the parts of Morrison’s version:

  • “Each night” – This may seem at first a weak, adverbial way to begin a sentence until we realize the significance of “night” — the time of darkness, dreams, nightmares, fantasies, memories and projections of our future.
  • “without fail” – Isn’t this redundant with “each night”? If I tell you I do something each night, doesn’t that imply I do it every time? Here is where a bit of redundancy intensifies the meaning, add[s depth and dimension. “Without fail” speaks to obsession, the seed for mental illness, the idea that if she did not perform this action it would be deemed a failure.
  • “she prayed for” — The verb could have been “hoped” or “dreamed.” Instead, it is stronger. She “prayed” for it. That prayer reminds us of the innocent child who says her prayers at bedtime (“Now I lay me down to sleep …”), but that connotation of innocence is destroyed time and again by the damage others inflict upon Pecola, which transforms into the harm she does to herself.
  • “blue eyes” — Time and again, I find great writers taking advantage of this move: putting the most interesting, important, or emphatic words near the end of the sentence. I would love to know how many times the word eyes, or the phrase “blue eyes” appears in the novel. (I just opened the novel at five random pages, and the word “blue” or “eyes” appeared at least once on each page.) Since “The Bluest Eye” is the title of the book, and since the desire for blue eyes stands as the engine of the narrative, it makes perfect sense that the language would be repeated, just as the phrase “my girl,” is repeated over and over by The Temptations in Smokey Robinson’s famous song.

From title to focus

For years I have been preaching that every text needs a focus, a central theme or thesis, a point, that all the evidence in that text will somehow support. For Morrison it’s right there in the title, “The Bluest Eye.” That imagined transformation of Pecola’s natural brown eye color is the “objective correlative” that T.S. Eliot describes as a central concern of the poet. The blue eye becomes the object that correlates to the dominant theme or issue or concern the author is trying to express. In a 1993 afterword to the novel, Morrison writes “Implicit in her (Pecola’s) desire was racial self-loathing. And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.”

 

Let’s X-ray a passage narrated by a character named Claudia, who describes the moral, cultural, and economic conditions of her time and place via the repetition of a single word:

Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life. The threat of being outdoors surfaced frequently in those days. Every possibility of excess was curtailed with it. If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors. If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors. Sometimes mother put their sons outdoors, and when that happened, regardless of what the son had done, all sympathy was with him. He was outdoors, and his own flesh had done it. To be put outdoors by a landlord was one thing – unfortunate, but an aspect of life over which you had no control, since you could not control your income. But to be slack enough to put oneself outdoors, or heartless enough to put one’s own kin outdoors – that was criminal.

The word “outdoors” appears 11 times in this paragraph of 138 words. It appears 11 times in 10 sentences. It appears in every sentence except the third. It appears in different locations: at the beginning of a sentence, at the end and in the middle. The word outdoors can be used as a noun, but more often appears as an adverb (as it does in each use above).

The same, but different

Repetition craves variation, an effect that often comes with parallel constructions. I work from a simple definition of parallelism: the use of similar words or phrases to discuss similar things or ideas. Notice, for example, how these two sentences parallel each other:

If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors.

If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors.

These are the same, but different. She can manage this in a single sentence as well:

People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors.

Gamble themselves equals drink themselves, and both point to the word outdoors.

You would think that this level of repetition and parallelism might exhaust the topic, but not so. In the very next paragraph, she builds on her dominant theme, but uses it to gain some altitude; that is, to move from the world where things are happening to a higher place where meaning is discovered:

There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. Being a minority in both caste and class, we move about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment. Our peripheral existence, however, was something we had learned to deal with – probably because it was abstract. But the concreteness of being outdoors was another matter – like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay.

Five more uses of the word “outdoors,” but how different from the first paragraph. There the emphasis was on “outdoors” as a physical place. In the following paragraph the word has climbed up the ladder of abstraction, assuming the status of a condition of being, a way of life. The stakes get higher and higher until outdoors is not just a form of alienation or ostracism, but also a virtual equivalent to death. “Dead doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay.”

Writing strategies inspired by Toni Morrison:

  1. Embrace the distinction between repetition and redundancy. Use the first to establish a pattern in the work, whether of language or imagery. Redundancy is not always a bad thing (just ask an airline pilot). For the reader, you may want to create a variety of entry points to a single destination.
  2. When you repeat a word, phrase or other element of language or narrative, make sure it is worth repeating. Make sure that each repetition advances the story in some way.
  3. Good stories have a focus, a theme, a central idea, a governing metaphor such as “the bluest eye.” The eyes are the windows to the soul. And the focus is the window to the soul of the story. If you find a powerful governing idea, it is almost impossible to make too much of it. The key, according to writer and editor Bill Blundell, is to repeat the focus, but to express it in different ways: through a character detail, a scene, a bit of dialogue.
  4. Ineffective repetition slows down a narrative. Effective repetition helps it gain traction. Each reappearance of a character or repetition of a phrase can add meaning, suspense, mystery, energy to a story.